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Mark Thompson

Speeches

Mark Thompson

Director-General


Speech given to the International Press Institute World Congress in Edinburgh - Whose side are we on?


Sunday 28 May 2006
Printable version

Public service broadcasting comes in many forms. Different traditions, different funding models, different debates.

 

Even within a given market, different views about what PSB consists of. Quality. Range and diversity. Market failure.

 

It's all so complex that some have concluded that what public service broadcasting really is is something that public service broadcasters make up as they go along.

 

In fact there's one theme which is common to PSB almost everywhere – where it doesn't exist, it's an aspiration or a known failing.

 

Here in the UK and in many other countries, it's the first principle of public service. It's the rock on which everything else is built.

 

This is the idea of impartial, dispassionate, disinterested journalism. Journalism which is free from governmental or party political influence.

 

Journalism which – though it may be funded in part or in whole through commercial means – is also independent of commercial vested interests.

 

In the next few minutes, I want to address three questions: first, is this tradition of impartial public service journalism under threat? Second, if it is, should we care? Third, is there anything we can do about it?

 

The threats

 

The answer to the first question is yes – we've heard about some of the threats already today.

 

Suppression of independent sources of news is growing in some parts of the world – in the BBC's case, and to take just one example, the Iranian government has decided recently to start blocking our Persian website.

 

The site is not in any way anti-Iranian or anti-Muslim. It is simply seeking to make impartial and truthful news about Iran and the rest of the world available to those Iranians who want to access it. That seems to be the problem.

 

In some of the world's most troubled places, as both Johann and Wilfred noted this morning, intimidation and violence against journalists are also on the rise.

 

We've lost colleagues, other news organisations represented here have lost colleagues.

 

Sometimes action against journalists is represented as an attack on partiality or bias. More often it seems to me it's the opposite: it's the impartiality, the objectivity that free journalistic inquiry aims at which brings the offence.

 

Intimidation and violence are of course not restricted to broadcast journalists, let alone broadcast journalists working specifically within the public service tradition.

 

Commercial pressures – for instance uncertainty of funding as audiences and advertising fragment – are again common to many different journalistic enterprises.

 

But there are some threats which are peculiar to the public service broadcast space.

 

A loss of public resolve, in some countries, in the need for any kind of civic intervention in the provision of news and other forms of journalism.

 

The consequent economic pressures on some PSBs to compete more aggressively in the market, to reduce investment in news, to shift news out of peak-time – we've seen that with one key commercial PSB here in the UK – or to shift news values down market.

 

Short-termism when it comes to public funding for PSB with, for example in Canada, annual political processes before funds are agreed and released, with all the attendant pressures and opportunities for interference.

 

And lying ahead, the splintering, bewildering virtual world with who knows what fresh competitive and editorial challenges.

 

Perhaps it's not surprising that around the world some public service journalists watched the movie Good Night and Good Luck with nostalgic envy.

 

Now at the BBC we don't face many of these pressures.

 

Our constitution gives us real distance and independence from Government. Our Charter is to be renewed for another ten years and we will continue to enjoy licence-fee funding throughout that decade, though famously the precise level of the fee has yet to be determined.

 

It's a very privileged position. And yet here too there are ways in which the idea of impartiality is under threat.

 

The British print journalism tradition is unashamedly, indeed, rumbustuously, one of partiality and many British print journalists, while supporting values like accuracy and fairness, wonder if true impartiality is even possible.

 

Doesn't the broadcasters' much-vaunted ‘impartiality' actually cloak a hidden agenda?

 

To some on the left, the veiled hand of the Establishment.

 

In the case of the BBC, to British conservative commentators and any number of American bloggers, part of a vast global liberal conspiracy.

 

Politicians too can also struggle with the concept of impartiality – either because almost everyone in their world arrives with a political agenda or because in the 24/7 marathon of modern professional politics it's easy to believe that your own view of the world is the only reasonable view.

 

And even if a politician is prepared to allow that impartiality is theoretically possible, it can still feel like a shadowy, rather contemptible thing.

 

The BBC's 'unctuous impartiality', one British Conservative politician, Norman Tebbit, called it in the 1980s.

 

Some academics too doubt whether the classic claims for objective, dispassionate journalism can be sustained.

 

Beneath the apparent 'facts' lurk hidden assumptions, narratives or ideologies.

 

Words like 'impartial' should raise alarm-bells: impartial to whom? And between what?

 

In their different ways, these different critiques of the impartiality which public service broadcasters hold so dear represent different forms of what the epistemologists call perspectivalism, the view that our access to the truth is inevitably constrained and conditioned by the perspectives that we adopt.

 

And, at least superficially, this view seems to be gaining ground.

 

The BBC's Governors recently commissioned an independent report into the Corporation's coverage of Israel and the Palestinians – one of today's flash-points for arguments about impartiality and bias.

 

It's a thought-provoking report with many useful and valid points to make. I should add that I and my colleagues have yet to give the Governors a comprehensive response to it.

 

Nonetheless I want to refer to it because it illustrates two essentially different philosophies of journalism and editorial control.

 

The report rejected charges of bias in the BBC's coverage and broadly supported the system of editorial guidelines which BBC News had put in place, but the authors were clearly surprised that we had not gone further and adopted a comprehensive 'line' or editorial policy on the conflict.

 

Rather than allow individual correspondents and editors to report the facts and form their own judgements on developments, why not appoint what they called 'a guiding hand' to ensure consistency?

 

You reduce the potential for bias, in other words, by standardising around a common perspective. Newspapers and magazines do this all the time.

 

The philosophy of BBC journalism is very different.

 

If you want a term – though I'd be the first to admit it's not a phrase that comes up very often in the newsroom – I would say we were critical realists: 'critical' because we accept that the facts come to us mediated through complex narratives and assumptions and that each of us needs to use both sophisticated analysis and individual judgement to make sense of them, but 'realists' because we believe that it is still possible – indeed it is our duty – to get to the facts and to form as objective and accurate view of the world as possible.

 

And that is what, within the context of clear journalistic values and sensible editorial guidelines, we ask our editors and journalists to do.

 

That is why we believe we can rely on their judgement and why we delegate editorial power so far down the organisation.

 

Now we're not perfect. Impartiality is something you need to work at and strive for continually.

 

Over the past five years or so, we've tried hard to improve the accuracy and fairness of our coverage of business.

 

More recently, we've appointed new on-screen senior editors to give more depth to our reporting of Europe and the Middle East.

 

We're creating what we've called a College of Journalism to broaden the knowledge and skills of all of us who work in the BBC's journalism and to share best practice.

 

We're confident in our values as journalists. But the external climate on this issue is growing chillier.

 

Whose side are you on? – with the implication that if you're not on this side, you must be on that one – is a question one seems to hear more frequently.

 

The debate about the use of the word terrorist to describe individuals or groups is a case in point.

 

We use the word to describe terrorist incidents and crimes but in common with many other organisations, we have recommended for many years that our journalists think carefully before using it to describe people.

 

Not of course because we condone the horror that terrorist acts can cause, but because we believe that more dispassionate, factual language – 'gun man', 'bomber' – can usually convey the facts better and more consistently across our coverage.

 

Other journalists have other priorities. But the central purpose of our journalism is never to tell people what to think.

 

We see our job as to provide the public here and around the world with the facts and objective analysis they need to make up their own minds about what is happening in the world.

 

Should we be worried?

 

If some of the principles that underpin public service journalism are under attack, should we care? This was my second question.

 

And again, my answer is yes. We should care.

 

First because – certainly in the UK – there's a lot of evidence that the public place much more trust in public service sources of news than other sources.

 

Last year the leading press trade magazine in this country commissioned a poll of the UK public asked them to name the newspaper, magazine, broadcast news programme or news website they considered to be trustworthy.

 

The BBC was mentioned five times more often than its nearest rival.

 

And that nearest rival, by the way, was Sky News, part-owned by News Corporation.

 

It's a news provider which, though not in any regulatory or economic way a PSB, nonetheless abides by similar values and standards – another by-product of the broader public service broadcasting ecology in the UK.

 

BBC News also enjoys exceptional high levels of trustworthiness around the world: at least in part, it seems reasonable to conclude, because of its status – independent not just of government but of commercial interest.

 

But trustworthiness is not the only factor.

 

In open societies, much of the media which citizens receive is inevitably not only commercial but partial. That's a good, not a bad thing.

 

An open market in ideas and opinions is an essential part of any healthy democracy.

 

Plurality demands a multiplicity of different sources of information and ideological viewpoints and, I would argue, a multiplicity of different funding models.

 

Public service broadcasters who imply, as some do, that commercially-funded or politically-committed journalism and commentary are intrinsically less valuable are wide of the mark.

 

We're all in the same business and, when we do good work, we all add to the national and global debate.

 

But impartial journalism in the broadcast public service tradition does make some specific contributions, especially when it reaches wide audiences.

 

First it offers a cross-check or benchmark against which news consumers can measure their other sources of news and information.

 

Imagine a UK election, for instance, in which the BBC, ITN, Sky and other TV and radio broadcast news and current affairs had disappeared and the public relied solely on newspapers to follow the course of the campaign and key policy arguments.

 

The danger is not one of insufficient information but rather of the electorate breaking up into a series of self-selected but nonetheless rather limited zones of debate: Daily Mail world, Guardian world and so on.

 

And this leads on to a wider point. People sometimes talk about public service broadcasters like the BBC being 'the national glue'.

 

While that phrase is a little glib, I do believe that public service broadcasting is about creating common ground, sometimes yes so that people can be reminded of the values, the events, the experiences that they share, but just as often so that they can be confronted by difference: by different opinions, different cultures.

 

It's not necessarily about a national consensus: it's about a national conversation in which greater mutual understanding may in turn lead to greater mutual tolerance.

 

We live in a world which struggles with difference.

 

A future in which you know before you open your newspaper or your favourite website that you're going to agree with every word you find there, that every comment and opinion will reinforce those you already hold, that is a future in which our differences are likely to become more, not less, problematic.

 

Access to mass public service news and current affairs is one way in which citizens can guarantee that they wouldn't be able to avoid confronting uncomfortable alternative views of the world.

 

So what can we do?

 

So we should care.

 

But is there anything that can be done, not so that the public service tradition I've talked about can in any way dominate journalism around the world – in the teeming digital world that's not imaginable and in open societies where the public should be free to exchange any news they want, no matter how parti pris, it's not desirable either; not then so that it can dominate, but so that it can persist and remain influential?

 

Well, I think this is probably the right topic for our discussion. But let me end with a few brief pointers.

 

First, there's no escaping the fact that public service broadcasting has to be a conscious civic choice.

 

In my view, it's of real democratic value but it cannot exist itself without strong democratic institutions and culture.

 

Even then, especially in the form it exists in the UK, it requires serious public investment and will always be contentious.

 

There are some commercial interests which will always wage war against it.

 

So what it needs more than anything is enthusiastic public support.

 

As one looks at the status of different public service broadcasters in different democracies around the world, public support is the key variable.

 

Once lost or allowed to decline, it is very difficult to secure again.

 

Any country that wants to develop a public service broadcasting tradition needs to begin to think about how to develop widespread public support.

 

That is why, by the way, where public service broadcasting is strong, it is never restricted to narrowly-defined market failure content: it always has a popular dimension as well.

 

Second, public service broadcasting needs political support, but having given that support the politicians need to keep as far away from it as possible.

 

Political mandates and charters should be long rather than short. Funding again should be granted over longer rather than shorter terms.

 

Governance and accountability should emphasise independence above all other values.

 

PSBs, and there are quite a few of them, where senior officials change regularly after elections, do not meet this last criterion and, as a result, cannot enjoy as high a reputation for impartiality and trustworthiness as those which are more fully independent.

 

Third and finally, globalisation offers intriguing possibilities for public service journalism.

 

Yes, the explosion of choice and the fragmentation of audiences risks squeezing share with all the potential consequences: loss of revenue or civic legitimacy or both.

 

But globalised digital media is also potentially a powerful democratising force and a good environment for independent, reliable news to find audiences around the world.

 

BBC News on radio, TV and the web reaches around 250 million people every week and that number is growing rapidly.

 

For most of those people, we are not the only, and in many cases not even the most important source of news and information and we don't aspire to be.

 

What we do aspire to offer, in common with some of the other international news providers whether they regard themselves as public service players or not, is a view of the world which is as uncoloured as it can be by prejudice or sectional interest.

 

Which provides what I've called common ground in which different perspectives and different value systems can debate with each other and can be independently scrutinised and assessed.

 

We also aspire to take a common sense view of the challenge of reflecting reality so that when people ask us 'which side are you on?', we can answer honestly that we're on the side of the facts. Thank you.




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